Critical Discourse: what is it? What can it do?

Critical Discourse Analysis is the process of deconstructing language to reveal the ideological and political functions underlying a text. This means exploring how the text works and what it is attempting to signify.

It is a non-traditional method  that is entirely subjective and relies on the personal interpretation of the analyst. However, CDA can highlight some key processes happening within a text and unify this with how we operate in society every day.


The first models of CDA were inspired by the ideas of Saussure  and Jakobson. Both theorists were interested by the study of phrases, treating them like signs that were made up of higher social meaning.


Many criticised them for being too reductionist. This led to CDA branching out to social theorists such as Althusser and Barthes. They went on to form the foundation for much of Foucault’s work  as he pushed CDA into its second movement where research became more empirical as it was agreed that this was needed to investigate something as subjective and contextual as language and culture.


Key Figures

Saussure’s theory of Langue and Parole captures the key idea of CDA; he looks at language as a system of signs for sociological events. Levi Strauss and Barthes  influenced contemporary discourse analysis with their study of semiotics; analysing how messages are communicated and read.

Fairclough then built upon these ideas by showing systematic links between text, culture and people. He uses CDA to highlight the ways in which communication helps to establish power relations. It helps us to analyse how words act as evidence to social and ideological theories.



The lonely hour of reading never comes


Texts are polysemy, which means there are an infinite number of interpretations that can be drawn from a text, and these fluctuate from person to person. There is a lot of ground to cover with CDA, it is a methodology that can point out elements of bias, but not identify the precise point from where it came.

 There are many elements that can affect the way, for example, a newspaper article is written beyond simply its language and the politics involved.


An A-Z Glossary for Critical Discourse Analysis


Abstract ideas: thought of apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances

Active clause: When the verb of a sentence is in the active voice, the subject is doing the acting, as in the sentence “Kevin hit the ball.”

Adjective: describing word

Alliteration: words beginning with the same letter are put together

Ambiguity: vague, doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention

Anaphoric referencing: The use of a linguistic unit, such as a pronoun, to refer to the same person or object as another unit, usually a noun. The use of her to refer to the person named by Anne in the sentence Anne asked Edward to pass her the salt is an example of anaphora


Behavioural process: e.g. the car slid away


Cataphoric referencing: see anaphoric referencing – this time the ‘she’ will come before the object is named

Categorical relationships: how words relate to one another, how the mind makes these connections and remembers them. Complementary words/ opposites. Inclusive/ exclusive

Clause: Grammar A group of words containing a subject and a predicate and forming part of a compound or complex sentence.

Colloquialism:  slang, shortened words, common vernacular

Complementing clause: using the word ‘and’ to join two clauses together to show that they are of equal importance

Compounds/ blends: putting elements of two words together, either whole words or only certain parts

Conceptual model: the application of the theory of metaphor into everyday life, a way of organising thoughts into ways we understand

Conjunction: joining words e.g. ‘but’ or ‘and’

Consensual model of society: the belief that society shares all its interests in common, without division of variation

Contractions: shortening of words e.g. ‘shouldn’t’

Cultural capital: Types: economic, cultural, social and symbolic – refers to someone possessing some form of wealth or superiority over another


Dependant clause:  using the word ‘as’ for example to portray that there is  one clause that is of less important that another, it is additional or supporting information

Determiner: words like ‘the’ or ‘a’

Disambiguation: to remove the ambiguity from; make unambiguous


Ellipsis: missing out an element e.g. a word or a letter

Euphemism: the substitution of a mild, indirect, or vague expression for one thought to be offensive, harsh, or blunt


Foregrounding: using linguistic techniques to emphasise a particular word or phrase in a text

Framing: how people construct and perceive and communicate reality


Graphology: analysing the layout of a page, how something looks or is set out, the design of a text


Halliday’s speech functions – referential – communicates information, aesthetic/ poetic – pleasure in language, performative , phatic – small talk, expressive – emotions and feeling

Heteroglossia: many voices in a text

Homocentrism:  a pre-occupation with countries, societies and individuals perceived to be like one- self, someone outside of that is labelled dangerous

Homographic pun – exploiting multiple meanings that can be achieved by the same word  e.g. ‘foil’ which can mean to baffle, or the noun.

Homophonic pun – substitute words that sounds the same but have an unrelated meaning  e.g. raised, razed.

Hypotaxis: describes the relationship a dependant clause has with a dominant one


Ideational Metafunction: language used to organise, understand and express our perceptions of the world

Ideographic pun – substituting words for ones that sound the same e.g. ‘mary’ and ‘merry’

Interpersonal Metafunction:  enables us to participate in communication, take on roles, and understand feelings, attitudes and judgements

Intertextuality – pastiche, parody, allusion: the deconstruction of things we in society presume to be natural


Lexis (Lexical) words

Linguistically heterogeneous: made up of varying elements


Material process:  clause describing an action e.g. Jerry took the money

Mental process:  clause describing a state of mind e.g. He didn’t see me

Modality – speaker’s attitude/ opinion expressed through the verbs used in a sentence e.g. shouldn’t, couldn’t. Can be deontic, boulomaic, epistemic

Morphemes: A meaningful linguistic unit that cannot be divided into smaller meaningful parts e.g. suffixes and prefixes

Morphology: the patterns of word formation in a particular language, including inflection, derivation, and composition


 Narrative: a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious.

Naturalisation – the discourse appears natural, its views are taken as common sense and like it is a belief held by all

Neutralisation – disguised nature of ideology, people don’t understand the effects a text is having and believe it is written in an unbiased and objective tone

Nominalisation (Objectivation):  to convert (another part of speech) into a noun

Noun: The part of speech that is used to name a person, place, thing, quality, or action and can function as the subject or object of a verb – common noun, proper noun, pronoun


Paronomasia: a play on words, a pun

Passive clause – A verb is in the passive voice when the subject of the sentence is acted on by the verb e.g. “The ball was thrown by the pitcher”

Pronouns: personal/ possessive e.g. ‘my’


Relational Process:  a clause that attributes to something e.g. she was in a ward on the third floor

Repetition: using a word more than once

Rhetorical tropesHyperbole – an exaggeration of a word  metaphor, neologism – shifting word meaning by changing the grammatical function of a word or blending two words together


Semantics: the meanings behind words, underlying a text

Sentence:  A grammatical unit that is syntactically independent and has a subject

Substitution: using another word in place of another, still refers to the same thing

Syntax: the study of the rules for the formation of grammatical sentences in a language.


Tense: a category of verbal inflection that serves chiefly to specify the time of the action or state expressed by the verb.

Textual Function: Language used to relate to is said to the real world and other linguistic events

Thematic structure – what the clause is about, it describes the relationship between words and clauses to help create cohesion within the text. Constant thematic structure – the common theme shared by each clause. Linear thematic structure – the theme of a subsequent clause is the same theme as the current one

Transitivity: the study of transitivity is concerned with how actions are represented in a text, explaining the kinds of actions that occur, who does them and to whom they are done


Verb: doing word, indicates action or movement  – lexical, finite/ non-finite auxiliary

Verba sentiendi – emotive language

Verbal Process:  dialogue in a text






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